Neuroscientist introduces controversy among scientists about the use of videogames

One of the first videogames successful in public and sales was Pong, launched in 1972. In Pong, two players try to reach a small, moving ball, like a pingpong game. As simple as that. The platforms were those big machines placed in bars or lan houses, called consoles. Older readers will remember.

Since then, this form of virtual entertainment has grown exponentially, now being offered in portable media as tablets and cell phones, available anywhere, anytime, to anyone of any age. Videogames, currently, have millions of fans worldwide, kids as much as adults, mobilize billions of dollars and involve from individual entrepreneurs to the giant companies of virtual entertainment.

The massive and global success of these games, especially those called action videogames, appreciated mostly, attract the interest of the media, but raise important and worrying issues, as well. Are videogames good, innocuous or bad for people? How should educators and families deal with them? Good or bad, which group of users are more susceptible to their effects? Is there any difference between sexes and among ages? Is parents monitoring capable of accentuating the possible positive effects while attenuating deleterious influences?

pong

In Pong, two players try to reach a small, moving ball, like a pingpong game. As simple as that. (picture: Atari)

What has Science to say about this issue? Science approaches this topic and the results have controversial aspects that produce intense debate among scientists. In order to distil wise conclusions, it is necessary to evaluate the scientific data and make use of good common sense to interpret them.

Some important conclusions have already been established by scientific evaluation of videogames, performed by research groups in Science for Education of different countries. As technological products, videogames can be approached under the protocols of the so-called translational research, involving from small groups of subjects in experimental projects, to numerous cohorts in randomized, multicentric research (numerous, randomly selected groups of different countries), similar to what is usually done for therapeutic candidate drugs. Differently from those products of which the targets are health promotion and treatment of diseases, however, for products of virtual entertainment there are neither regulations, nor worries from companies to assure the risks and benefits that might occur.

To analyze these issues, in the case of videogames, it is necessary to first focus on some preliminary points: (1) the use of videogames can be practiced by children, adolescents or adults of both sexes, and this diversity of public can differentiate greatly what one should expect of good or bad consequences; (2) the use may be occasional and recreational, or very frequent, getting close to addiction, and even professional, in the case of players who participate of championships and tournaments; (3) the content of videogames may be clearly abstract, such as in Pong, Tetris and others; or have a plot, such as the pioneering Space Invaders, the current Call of Duty, and many others; (4) the content of videogames may be peaceful and educational, as in Math Rescue and Minecraft, or clearly violent and aggressive, as in God of War and Assassin’s Creed.

The group headed by Daphne Bavelier performed studies with infant and young users of action videogames. (picture: IAS)

The group headed by Daphne Bavelier performed studies with infant and young users of action videogames. (picture: IAS)

Two research groups have studied videogames intensively, and illustrate very well that the controversy about benefits versus harm by videogames reaches the scientific community as well, and should be well evaluated to distinguish between the two extremes. One of these groups is headed by psychologist Craig Anderson (Figure 2), from Iowa State University, United States. Anderson and his colleagues performed many studies of epidemiological style to verify the consequences of violent videogames on users. The other group is directed by neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier (Figure 2), from the University of Geneve, Switzerland, and University of Rochester, USA. Bavelier adopts an experimental approach, studying a lower number of youngsters, in controlled experiments. Both groups are very serious and careful in their work.

After a series of studies in different countries, Anderson’s group published a work in 2014 with over 3 thousand children and adolescents of primary and secondary schools in Singapore, 73% male. The study was longitudinal, that is, performed along 3 years with tests each year. Longitudinal studies are stronger, conceptually, because they analyze the same subjects along time, and allow more robust conclusions on causes and effects. The objective of the study was to evaluate whether the intensive use of violent videogames impacts on aggressiveness of frequent users more than of non-users or moderate users, and if the mediators of this possible influence would be aggressive cognition, that is, if the evaluation people make of some situations have or have not an aggressive content. They also evaluated empathy, the ability to establish an emotional link with others.

The result was categorical: frequent and prolonged use of violent videogames increases aggressiveness in these kids and teenagers along time and frequency of use, this effect being mediated by blurring of their ability to evaluate violent situations as such. For example: when asked if they were upset about a scene of urban aggressiveness, they answered negatively. Besides, the authors observed a reduction of empathy by the players, that is, a lower ability to identify affectively with other people. This influence was independent of parents monitoring, was equivalent among boys and girls, and a little higher among younger (8-10 years) than older (11-14 years) subjects.

Violent videogames, when used with high frequency by youngsters, tend to banalize the violent content of daily life, causing more aggressiveness, more passivity and more fear towards violence. (picture: Call of Duty)

Violent videogames, when used with high frequency by youngsters, tend to banalize the violent content of daily life, causing more aggressiveness, more passivity and more fear towards violence. (picture: Call of Duty)

The same was observed for the United States, Finland, Germany, Japan and Canada in other studies. The authors, in general, describe four effects of violent videogames: the aggressor effect (users become more aggressive), the victim effect (users feel more vulnerable in face of the world), the bystander effect (users become more indifferent to violence), and the appetite effect (the more they play, the more they want to play).

The conclusion follows what would be expected by common sense: violent videogames, when used with high frequency by youngsters, tend to banalize the violent content of daily life, causing more aggressiveness, more passivity and more fear towards violence.

But things are not so simple. The group headed by Daphne Bavelier performed studies with infant and young users of action videogames, comparing frequent users (>3 h every day) with sporadic users and non-users. They found positive effects of videogame practice on perception and attention (Figure 3). In a recent article, Bavelier and her colleagues emphasize some key issues about attention, which are positively influenced by action videogames. The first is exogenous attention, also called stimulus-dependent – the one produced by external stimuli, such as those derived from videogame monitors. The other is exogenous or top-down attention, produced and controlled by the subject himself (attention control). Exogenous attention is simpler and more direct, since it depends on something external that captures the subject’s perception. Endogenous attention, on the other hand, is an ability that needs to be learnt, since it requires from the individual an active control of focus, even in presence of surrounding distractors. It is important, for instance, when one reads a book on a bus or a train.

In a recent work published in 2014, and conducted by Vikranth Bejjanki, the Bavelier group studied young people of both sexes, around 20 years old, some of them action videogame users, some others users of non-action videogames, and a third group of non-users. They compared the three groups in visual perception tasks requiring endogenous attention. They also trained non-users with both kinds of games, thus performing a small group longitudinal study, similar to that by Craig Anderson, described above.

Action videogamers have a better attentional control than those who play action-less videogames. (picture: Flickr/Crhis Partitt – CC BY 2.0)

Action videogamers have a better attentional control than those who play action-less videogames. (picture: Flickr/Crhis Partitt – CC BY 2.0)

The results yielded various conclusions: action videogamers have a better attentional control than those who play action-less videogames; non-users, after being trained on action videogames, perform better than those trained on action-less games. Besides that, the positive effects of these games persist for as much as 12 months. But do these kids learn to control better their attention exclusively for the perceptual tasks that researchers employed in the first experiments? Or is it the case that the better performance spreads to other tasks? The second option proved true: action videogame users became better performers in other tasks, differently from the original ones. The conclusion of the authors was that these kids “learned to learn”.

One may conclude from these two scientific approaches that action videogames have positive effects on attention and learning, even when used with a relatively low frequency, insufficient to produce addiction. However, their often violent content produces harmful effects: empathy reduction, deviated aggressive cognition, and increased aggressive behavior.

Obviously, much scientific work still has to be done about the subject, but what has already been achieved can drive reasonable suggestions of educational utility: action videogames are positive to “learn to learn”, that is, to focus attention amid external and internal distractors. However, the action of videogames should not contain violence and aggressiveness, since the consequences are negative to users and, therefore, to the whole society. How to solve this dilemma is a task of high complexity, because the current videogames – with as much action and violent content – have become a source of mass entertainment and gigantic profits. This part of the problem, however, is out of the reach of scientists, and turns out to be a problem of the society as a whole.

 

Suggested readings

A. Gentile and coworkers (2014) Mediators and moderators of long-term effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior. Journal of the American Medical Association (Pediatrics), vol. 168, pp. 450-457.

A. Anderson and coworkers (2010) Violent videogame effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin 136:151-176.

Cardoso-Leite and D. Bavelier (2014) Video game play, attention, and learning: how to shape the development of attention and influence learning? Current Opinion in Neurology 27:185-191.

R. Bejjanki and coworkers (2014) Action video game play facilitates the development of better perceptual templates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, vol. 111:16961-16966.

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